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Report on medical mission to the Philippines

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By GEORGE ROBERTSON, M.D.

Three weeks ago I hardly knew where the Philippines were located. I tried looking at the archipelago up on a map and it took several turns of the globe just to find it. I Googled it on the Internet and didn’t even spell it right. (It has one “L” and two “P’s.”)

Dr. Bernie Sy was invited by Starfish ministries on the trip and asked me to go as well. His connection to the group came from a fellow resident training companion from Lebanon. Ore.

Starfish ministries is a multi-denominational mission effort targeting the poor people on remote islands in the Philippines. Our team of 21 contained different faiths from Catholic to the Church of Christ. When we arrived, we were greeted and helped by 15 different congregations with the Church of the Nazarene taking the leading role.

This was Dr. Sy’s first overseas mission effort and he didn’t know what to expect. The Starfish headquarters had already assembled medications to treat many problems but when Buckeye drug company and Gibbs Pharmacy here in Lebanon heard about the trip they donated several hundreds of dollars worth of anti-hypertensives and antibiotics, enabling us to care for many of the 2,000 patients we would see during the two-week clinic.

It was wonderful to have church people meet us at the airport in Tacloban, the first work site. They helped us with our luggage, transport and hotel reservations. Todd Weller, the team leader, stressed that it was the local church’s service participation which made the trip possible and had much to do with the success of the venture. Their involvement was a big part of the neighborhood faith groups’ evangelical push. They helped with counseling the patients during the clinic hours. The ministers and church leaders had prayer with those requesting spiritual guidance. Todd said that the local church could be a source of strength and support long after the U.S.A. bunch leaves the little village on the coast of Samar. Many of the patients who had health problems too complicated for our resources could be networked through the local congregations to get additional help needs covered.

Surgical care included almost everything that could be done by a general surgeon under local anesthesia. The most involved cases were done under spinal anesthesia at the Albino M. Duran Memorial Hospital in Balangiga, Samar in the emergency room. Their staff with few resources welcomed the mission team with its “extravagant” supplies of sutures which were in great demand. The hospital provided an air-conditioned room with three exam tables. Their staff of two nurses teamed with our doctors to do about 40 cases in two days while we were in the area.

After going to other sites, we did lumps and bumps procedures for an additional 75 patients at facilities ranging from open air tents to pediatric health clinics. My favorite spot was in the “Penthouse,” an upstairs cinderblock building overlooking the squatter village on the harbor of Tacloban – a la “Slum Dog Millionaire” environment.

Most impressive were the 6- to 15-year-old boys who had circumcisions performed on them under local anesthesia with hardly a grimace from the entire group of more than 40 patients. Talk about tough people, these little boys and young men were exceptional.

Pharmacy estimates more than 6,000 prescriptions dispensed by Lee Hamaker and his team of junior high to college-aged assistants who counted pills and labeled bottles. The directions for taking the medications cleverly included pictures of sunrise, noon sun and sunset with the nighttime dosages shown as a picture of the stars and moon. These little labels were taped to the patient’s bag or bottle holding their medication.

Dr. Sy said that the experience gave him as a big a rush as anything else in medicine but when he saw his last patient of the several hundred that he attended “it was like graduating from medical school again” because of all the relief and fulfillment in having all that work behind him.

After the clinic was over, the group recuperated at the Marriott Hotel which was a 5-minute walk from the modern Ceba Mall with its more than 300 stores waiting to take your money. Some of the participants snorkeled the nearby tropical reef and others went to the spa.

Traveling more than 20 hours one way by plane was definitely the hardest part of the trip, with the 10-hour stint between Seattle, Wash., and Seoul, Korea, being the hardest.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Robertson is a physician with Family Medical Associates, PC, in Lebanon.

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